Heading into 2012, both the Tigers and Indians have question marks on their rosters. Whether it’s in the infield or out in the bullpen, both teams will struggle to overcome certain shortcomings in the season ahead. That’s true of every team regardless of market, division, or league.
The one place neither team will have to worry about in 2012 is catcher.
The Tigers and Indians have two of the best up-and-coming catchers in all of baseball in Alex Avila and Carlos Santana, respectively. Big things are expected from both men this season, but the question still remains: Which team is better off behind the plate? In all honesty, I’m not 100 percent sure there is a clear answer for that question.
Avila was a revelation for the Tigers in 2011. After struggling through the 2010 season while splitting time with Gerald Laird, Avila won the starting job in spring training and never looked back. He became a focal point of the Tigers lineup along with Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, made his first All-Star team—as a starter no less—and showed significant improvement all around.
Looking at Avila’s stats from 2010 and 2011, you’d almost swear they belonged to two different players. In 2010, he hit .228/.316/.340 with 7 home runs, 31 RBI, and 0.5 fWAR; last year, he hit .295/.389/.506, 19 home runs, 82 RBI, 4.9 fWAR. That improvement would be remarkable for any player, let alone a 24-year-old catcher during his first season as the primary catcher for a big league club.
When the Tigers picked Avila in the fifth round of the 2008 amateur draft, they hoped he would one day blossom into a solid hitter. For his emergence to occur so suddenly and impressively has to be a pleasant surprise. Even his offensive win probability increased from -1.2 in 2010 to 2.9 in 2011. It was literally a 180.
The question is: Can Avila build on that success and reach an even higher ceiling? It would be reasonable to expect Avila’s offensive production to fall in 2012. After all, Avila’s batting average on balls in play in 2011 was a mind-boggling .366—almost an 100-point improvement on his 2010 hit rate. Was Avila’s success in 2011 a fluke? Did he just get lucky, find the right holes and ride it to an All-Star season? Possibly, but we should all probably find out in 2012.
On defense, catchers are harder to analyze than other position players because they have such different skill sets and make such different plays. From what I’ve gathered, Avila was about an average defensive catcher in 2011. He managed to throw out 32 percent of all potential basestealers, but he got mixed reviews from sabermetric defensive stats. This means that although Avila was pretty good at throwing at runners, his overall defensive contributions probably didn’t do much to help the Tigers.
Nor does Avila block balls very well. UZR estimated the large number of passed balls he allowed to have cost the Tigers 5.8 runs. That’s not good, but it’s not something that can’t be fixed with a little bit of hard work on his part and dedication to getting his body in front of the baseball on a more consistent basis.
For the Indians, Carlos Santana is the man. After being acquired from the Dodgers in the 2008 Casey Blake trade, Santana quickly rose to the top of the Indians’ organizational depth chart and made his major league debut less than a year later. He made quite the first impression: In 46 games in 2010, Santana was a monster, posting .868 OPS with 6 home runs and 22 RBI.
More importantly, Santana’s performance in that short period of time helped the fans forget about the Victor Martinez trade and the deconstruction of the mid-2000′s AL contender. And then he got hurt. He almost has his ankle ripped off of his leg in Boston and had to be carted off the field. It was a massive blow to a fan base that has endured more than its fair share.
Thankfully, Santana returned at full strength in 2011 and put together a pretty remarkable offensive season. There were peaks and valleys along the way, but Santana showed he was fully recovered from his injury and ready to take his place as the man in the middle of the Indians’ lineup for good: he earned an .808 OPS and hit 27 home runs with 79 RBI and 3.5 fWAR.
Santana’s .351 on base percentage and .457 slugging percentage despite a .239 batting average. Santana took what pitchers were giving him, drove the ball the other way, and take walks his production jumped back to what we all expected it would be. Hopefully he can learn from the mistakes he made early last season, build off of them, and come out strong in 2012 at the plate.
Defensively, Santana is no better than Avila. Last season Santana managed to throw out only 24 percent of opposing basestealers—that’s not very good. In his defense, he’s still learning the position at the major league level and has worked hard with Sandy Alomar on his technique. Hopefully that number will increase this year and he can help take some pressure off of the Tribe’s pitching staff.
Like Avila, Santana’s defensive contributions were few and far between. Generally the sabermetric stats valued his glove as worse than Avila’s—especially troublesome because Santana spent a good portion of the season playing the much easier position of first base.
Bottom line, for as great as Santana can be at the plate, he has to improve his value behind it too in order to really become a star. Then again, given the Tribe’s gaping hole at first base, there is the possibility that Santana will make the switch to first full-time down the road in order to save his legs and lengthen his career. But for now, Santana will man the plate full time for the Indians in 2012.
The Verdict: I have to admit, I struggled with this one. Based on how young both players are and how much potential they have shown, how could you go wrong with either ? Honestly, I don’t think you can. But the point of this is to make a decision on which team has the advantage at catcher, so I can’t just leave it at that.
The way I ultimately reached my decision was asking: If both players were offered free of charge to every other team in baseball, which would they be more likely to take? They would go with Santana, so I did too. He’s a middle-of-the-order hitter who plays a position where offensive production comes at a premium. Find a catcher that can hit 30 home runs and drive in 100 runs a year and you’ve struck gold.
The Indians’ advantage at catcher goes beyond Santana. They have a serviceable backup in Lou Marson, who allows Manny Acta to spell Santana and keep him fresh without too much trouble. Throw in Santana’s ability to play first base and he is likely to be in the lineup each and every day without having to crouch behind the plate for 162 games.
Avila played in 133 games in 2011 and spent 1157 innings behind the plate. Can he do that again while keeping up his offensive production? The Tigers can’t afford to take his bat out of the lineup, and thanks to the Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera they don’t have the flexibility to move Avila to first or third for days off from behind the plate. Compare that with Santana’s 786 innings behind the plate last year and health becomes a major factor going against Avila.
All things considered I have more confidence in Santana heading into 2012 than I do in Avila, but not by much.